(Today's Reader Review comes from Blake, who decided to bring up a guy who most of you two have pleasantly forgotten about and some of you two never knew even existed: child star A+. The review for his debut album, The Latch-Key Child, follows: leave your thoughts for Blake below.)
There is very little to say about Andre “A+” Levins. Hailing from Hempstead, NY, Levins won a Def Jam-sponsored talent search in 1995 at the age of 14, and the following year he released his debut album, The Latch-Key Child, on Kedar Entertainment. Four years later, he followed this up with the inferior sophomore project Hempstead High, which featured the hit single “Enjoy Yourself”, best known for sampling Walter Murphy's “A Fifth Of Beethoven”. A+ essentially fell off the face of the Earth not long after; now the ripe old age of 32, the original Latch-Key Child is a hip hop obscurity.
The Wikipedia article about Levins features a link to his MySpace page, so you can tell that it hasn’t been edited in years. I’m sure his more recent name switch to “Young Plus” did him no favours. He allegedly has a few more albums and/or mixtapes floating around, but I didn’t listen to them, and neither did you.
The only other notable thing A+ has been involved with, in my opinion (remember, information on the man is scarce) is his guest appearance on the Lost Boyz's “Beasts From The East”, a track taken from the group's second album Love, Peace, & Nappiness. The beat was bland, and his participation was a non-factor: the song is probably known for being the platform fellow guest star Canibus used to tempt the listening public with the promise of great verses to come. Of course, like A+, Canibus would later realize that his career (or his credibility, at least) was doomed. But that’s neither here nor there. (Redman, of all people, also guested on that song, which I happen to quite like, but yeah, I agree about A+ not really contributing much; he sounded a little better on his other Lost Boyz cameo, on “My Crew” from the same album, also alongside Canibus. I really have to get back to the Lost Boyz catalog. And now back to your regularly scheduled program.)
Somehow, A+ managed to score some A-list East Coast guest appearances: Q-Tip, AZ, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep all drop in to show love. He even secured two Buckwild beats amidst the rest of the no-name production. Which is what happens when you win your record deal in a contest.
(I also feel the need to clarify that A+ is not the same A-Plus who is a part of the Souls Of Mischief. Not that you actually thought that after seeing that album cover, but all the same, you're welcome.)
1. NEXT LEVEL (INTRO) / ENTER HEMPSTEAD
Once the intro ends, the listener is treated to a much better beat than expected. When I first heard it, I was reminded of how Method Man's debut album Tical kicked off: A+ even drops a Tical reference, so he was clearly paying attention. Good to see that he studied some of the best. At this point, you will note that Levins sounds very similar to Nas's baggage handler AZ. The instrumental switches around the three minute-and-thirty second mark to an worse, but still pleasant, beat.
2. MOVE ON
The Smith Brothers beat is average, but the delivery is strong. I didn’t even mind the sample on the hook. The Latch-Key Child comes across as a fully realised emcee, which is an amazing feat, considering he was only fourteen at the time of recording.
3. ME & MY MICROPHONE (FEAT. Q-TIP)
A bit corny, but this track isn’t bad otherwise. Beat-wise, Buckwild's work reminds me of Nas’s “One Love” (although not nearly as good), (not really credited) Q-Tip hook and all. Corny or not, A+'s attempt at an extended metaphor is still miles ahead of most grown-ass rappers.
4. ALL I SEE
Oh Lordy, the radio track. Sounds completely out of place on the album, particularly the singing, which is overkill. For what it's worth, it gets the job done, but I won’t be listening to this song ever again.
5. GUSTO (FEAT. PRODIGY OF MOBB DEEP)
Prodigy stops by to lend a hand on this Miladon-produced banger. While the Latch-Key Child keeps up admirably, this is the Prodigy show through and through. He is simply on fire here, both lyrically and with his flow. The bars themselves have been thrown around on a lot of older Mobb Deep songs, so enthusiasts will surely recognise it (it also appears on the tail end of the new Mobb Deep album, too). The instrumental sounds like an inferior-but nonetheless-banging mid-1990s Havoc clone, thundering along nicely. A great fucking track, the best on the album bar none.
6. HARD TIMES
A minimalist Smith Brothers beat that lets A+’s lyrics shine through. Not that he’s actually lived the life he's describing or anything: he was only fourteen at the time of recording, after all. But just like Prodigy in the preceding track, he sells the story well.
7. A + Z (FEAT. AZ)
See what they did with there? Clever one, A+. The track isn’t bad, and is miles better than the majority of AZ’s output after his debut. The beat (from Ike Lee) is pretty good, albeit kind of boring. It sounds like we're getting Doe or Die-level AZ on here, which isn’t surprising, as that project was released only one year prior to The Latch-Key Child. It took a bit of focus to actually distinguish the two emcees from one another, they sound that similar. Lyrically, though, they both come off well.
8. WANNA BE RICH
Nothing memorable here. Clearly one of Buckwild’s throwaways that he reserves for third parties.
9. MY THING
Ditto with this track. A+ shows good energy here, but my interest in this album is waning...
10. PARKSIDE COALITION (FEAT. ?)
A step back in the right direction. There are some good battle rhymes from A+ on here, and a Prodigy sample to boot. Also features more references to the Wu-Tang Clan, which I just noticed are all over The Latch-Key Child, which is nice. There is at least one uncredited guest rapper on here, too, and he sounded okay.
11. PARTY JOINT
The worst track on the album. From the elevator music Smith Brothers beat to the rudimentary lyrics, this is a misfire.
12. ALPHA 2 OMEGA
This wasn’t too bad, though. Nothing to write home to your mother about, but not awful. A+ reflects on his life over a pretty good beat. The lyrics and delivery are faultless, and unlike the majority of actual adult rappers, he can write a hook. Prodigal son, indeed.
13. SHOUT IT OUT (OUTRO)
A bunch of shout-outs that take place over the album’s first beat. An unnecessary way to end things.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Latch-Key Child sounded a lot better than I remembered. I wouldn’t rank it anywhere near a classic, or even refer to it as a diamond in the rough, but A+ does well for himself on his first outing. Take the kid's age at the time of recording into consideration, and these songs actually end up being much more successful. I’m actually kind of shocked The Latch-Key Child hasn’t been reviewed on this site before, given this album’s year of release and its guest roster. This project is standard 1990s East Coast, which is never a bad thing. A+ sticks to the fundamentals admirably, without relying on the gimmicks one would expect from a young artist with presumably very little creative control. While some of these songs ultimately flatline, especially near the end of the album, the majority of the disc is fairly entertaining.
BUY OR BURN? If you can find it for cheap, I would recommend a purchase. Pick it up and reflect on a simpler time in hip hop, back when Prodigy of Mobb Deep wasn’t awful, and where radio catered to rappers, and not vice-versa. You’ll also be treated to lyrics by a fourteen year old that are far superior to many artists on this site (especially all of those Wu-Tang B-teamers that Max is so fond of), even if some of the beats are uninspired and dull.
BEST TRACKS: "Gusto"; "Next Level (Intro) / Enter Hempstead"; “Alpha 2 Omega"; "A + Z"
(Questions? Comments? Confusion? Headache? Stuffy nose? Diarrhea? Leave your thoughts below.)